Speak Up, Stand Up, and Act: A Conversation on Inclusion in the Workplace

With International Women’s Day taking center stage this month, some are asking if the hashtags and hand gestures are enough to spark real change—especially in the workplace. Sandra Boyd offers her insight and interviews Tammy Heermann to ask how everyone, not just women, can help foster inclusion in the workplace.

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” – Madeleine Albright

Sandra Boyd
Managing Director

Sandra Boyd is a Managing Director of the Organizational & Talent Development practice at B. Riley Farber. Her experience lies in partnering with individuals and organizations to anticipate and understand their needs and to develop innovative solutions for building leadership teams, employee engagement & performance, executive coaching, and career transition & outplacement.

I recently came across this quote and it made me think about how I have been feeling regarding my role as a woman in leadership and the legacy I am leaving to the next generation of women.

Did I stand up or sit down when it came time to support other women? The truth is, I have done both.

At this age and stage in my life and career, I am no longer fearful of potential repercussions in having an opinion and exercising my voice. I have become jaded with the monotony of acceptance and tolerance when it comes to women’s issues related to career path, health care, political power, and financial equity.

The heart hand gesture, central to International Women’s Day (IWD) 2024, and the theme of Inspire Inclusion, has provoked a lot of emotion in me. Collectively, women have been waiting for equality for over a hundred years and there is no lack of inspiration or desire for inclusion. The heart symbol just feels too light to capture the history and impact of this issue.

I have reflected on the generations of women in my own family and how they have worked to find equal footing in the world: my grandmother marched for the right to vote in the 1920’s because she was inspired (and consequently arrested); my mother simultaneously worked and raised a family because she was also inspired (and extremely exhausted); and I have raised a family and worked hard to build a career and become a leader, and I am always inspired. Yet I also feel frustration and exhaustion as I still don’t feel fully included with male leadership.

As is my nature, I reached out to my network of amazing women from across generations, roles, and career stages and asked how they felt about the theme for IWD this year. Many women agreed with me, especially the older women. Some women acknowledged the need to market the issue, especially to younger generations. This made me realize that we need to speak up, stand up and act (my own theme for 2024).

One of the women I reached out to is a longtime colleague and subject matter expert, author, and speaker Tammy Heermann to share her thoughts and insights about how everyone, not just women, can help foster inclusion in the workplace.

Below is our conversation:

Let’s talk facts and statistics to build the case and why we need radical change.

I have been helping organizations advance women in leadership for well over a decade. Organizations asked me to provide a business case when I started this work. I was brought in to convince the executive team to invest in creating a diverse organization and opportunities for women. And often, a lot of convincing was needed. It wasn’t a given that investing in the representation of women or inclusion was important or necessary. Thankfully, I’m not asked to provide a business case anymore.

The evidence for gender inclusivity is abundant, including improved financial performance, better representation of customers and markets, and improved innovation. However, despite the proven benefits, female representation in leadership and gender equality remains low. And the lack of progress over the years is staggering, frankly.

The 2023 Global Gender Gap Report, presented yearly at the World Economic Forum, states that at the current rate of progress, it will take 131 years to close the overall gender gap. The numbers have only moved 4% since the report’s inception 18 years ago.

Most are surprised to find out that Canada ranks 30th and the US ranks 43rd among OECD countries in terms of gender equity. Organizations can directly impact economic participation and opportunity for women, which is measured by this report. We simply need to do better. In fact, Grant Thornton’s latest report showed that North America was the only region with a dip in the representation of women in senior positions in mid-market businesses.

I could continue with more stats, but I think you get the picture. We are stagnant or declining, and we need to move faster.

The Global Gender Gap
Source: Global Gender Gap Report 2023, World Economic Forum

What role does intersectionality play in all of this?

Sadly, the already bleak picture for women gets even worse when we consider intersectionality. Thankfully, the latest Lean In/McKinsey Women in Business Report focused on intersectionality in their latest research.

They found, for example, that for every 100 men promoted to manager, 87 women are promoted, but only 54 African American women. And while women comprise 28% of C-suite positions, only 6% are women of color. When individuals belong to multiple marginalized groups, they will likely experience more bias when it comes to hiring, promotion, pay, access to mentors, sponsors, and so on.

Equal Pay Day is a simple yet concrete illustration of intersectionality and increased inequity. In 2024, March 12 is the day the average woman must work (in addition to all of 2023) to have earned what the average man had earned in 2023. But the date moves depending on which additional marginalized group a woman belongs to, with Indigenous women having to work until November 21st—almost another full year—to earn what an average man earns the prior year.

I remember when my daughter first learned about Equal Pay Day in elementary school. She came home imploring me, “Mom, how?! How is it even possible that this exists?” I often ask myself the same question.

Equal Pay Day Calendar
Source: https://www.aauw.org/resources/article/equal-pay-day-calendar/

If we don’t start making real changes, what impact and risk will unfold for future generations?

The stark reality is that we will not see gender parity in our lifetime. And we can’t wait to evolve to a brighter future. I feel like we’re at a crucial turning point in women’s advancement. On the one hand, young women speak out more about their rights; women are more educated than men and are more participative in the workforce. One would expect this to point to more equality. But it hasn’t done so enough.

Around the globe and closer to home, we have seen a continued stripping of women’s rights, which is downright scary. Women are also more susceptible to downturns in the economy. The pandemic impacted women dramatically more than men, largely because women still bear the brunt of caretaking duties at home. When it comes to gender roles, we haven’t evolved enough. According to Pew Research, teenage boys have more leisure time to play sports and games or watch TV, while girls spend more time with homework, grooming, housework, and errands.

Interestingly, just this past week, I received an email from LeanIn Girls for a session called Stomp Out Stereotypes. It asks girls if they have ever been told they should be sweet, helpful, good at babysitting, or good at cooking and cleaning. This session helps them recognize the cultural and societal stereotypes early and rethink how they add value and think about their own value. I love this.

So, where does this leave us? There have been many positive developments, but systemic barriers and disparities remain. Advocacy, policy changes, and collective efforts are essential for a positive, sustained movement for women. But that feels too big for most people to act on. So, we must look at our daily lives and see what small movements of support can be made.

What actions do leaders, regardless of gender, need to take in the workplace? What is no longer negotiable?

What is no longer negotiable is being a good people manager and talent developer, providing feedback and coaching, and providing career management support. I read about a survey in my news feed just this week—it reported that around 54% of all employees feel entirely alone when figuring out how to advance in their professions. And around 46% of all workers say their manager doesn’t know how to help them with their career development. That number climbs to 62% for Gen Z employees, who say they want to talk to their manager more about their career, but their manager is too busy for such conversations. Sadly, some Gen Zers are turning to chat GPT for advice.

Here are five actions leaders can implement now:

  1. Coach and provide feedback to build business acumen. Research shows that women are generally provided less and less specific feedback. When feedback is provided, it is focused on style and communication more than it is with men. Even peer feedback reinforces biases. For example, women were told to focus on delivery, cope with politics, get along, and be more confident (which was not perceived as inherent). Meanwhile, men were told to set a vision, leverage politics, claim space, and display more confidence (perceived as fixable and intrinsic). This is a massive difference in feedback.
  2. Avoid making assumptions about a female’s career path, dedication, ambition, or engagement, especially those with children. It is still primarily assumed that women are less ambitious than men, especially if they leverage flexible work policies or when they have children. They experience negative implications to promotion and compensation with each leave, compounding dramatically over time. Also, different standards are applied to working mothers than working fathers. Check what assumptions you’re making and continue to check in as life stages evolve. Drive and ambition are not always linked to the people knocking on your door (or pinging you) the loudest.
  3. Provide networking and profile opportunities. One of the most significant barriers to women’s success is exclusion from informal professional networks. If you are a manager, open your network and create opportunities to interact that are inclusive of the interests and schedules of all team members. Proactively provide females exposure and introductions to senior leaders and decision-makers and attribute a female’s ideas, contributions, or successes to higher-ups and important stakeholders.
  4. Examine how you think about potential. A newer study made headlines during the pandemic (although it confirmed what past studies had already shown): Women’s potential is systematically questioned even when they have higher performance by the organization’s standard measures. They are also held to a higher standard to prove their future potential. Potential is a subjective construct to measure, which makes it susceptible to further bias. The terms we associate with management and potential, such as assertiveness, charisma, and ambition, are stereotypically associated with males. And the real kicker is that the effect gets stronger the more senior a woman becomes. Leadership must be agnostic, and potential shouldn’t be evaluated against those who remind you of yourself.
  5. Move from good intentions to action. As a manager or male, recognize your voice has power. Ask your female colleagues and direct reports proactively how to support and show up for them. Don’t interrupt women during conversations and apologize when you do. Even more critical, interrupt others when they interrupt your female colleagues. Ensure women are heard. While working with individuals is vital to your role as a leader, changing the systems and culture is also essential to lasting change.

What are the top 3 actions that everyone can take regardless of gender, age, and stage in our careers?

We do need to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves about our capability and potential because, despite our best collective intentions, we often undermine ourselves daily.

Just this week, I had a participant reach out who attended one of my high-potential leadership programs for women years ago. She said that her experience in the program created a significant and lasting shift in how she viewed herself and her opportunities. Over the past few years, she was promoted to an executive role and is thinking about the next steps to fulfill and fuel her passions. She continues to reframe her internal stories.

If I must choose only three actions, then here they are:

  1. Believe in your potential; don’t wait for someone else to. Catch yourself when you start to say, “I can’t, won’t, don’t, shouldn’t,” and say, “I can, I will, I may, I am” instead. Don’t make toxic comparisons to others; make a healthy comparison: you to your younger, less experienced self. Marvel in how much you have grown, learned, and experienced, and trust yourself to learn and figure out the daunting stuff ahead. You got this.
  2. Do less shit by banishing the word busy and asking yourself, what is the best strategic use of my time right now. Throw out your to-do list and make a to-don’t list instead. And a to-be list while you’re at it. Get good at saying yes to you. Getting everything done does not exist. Focus on what is strategic for you.
  3. Own your greatness and track your truths by capturing and basking in your accomplishments and successes. Rewire your brain to recall your strengths, not your falls. Keep pushing, asking, and challenging your organization for yourself and all of us.

Our Contributors

Sandra Boyd is a Managing Director of the Organizational & Talent Development practice at B. Riley Farber. Her experience lies in partnering with individuals and organizations to anticipate and understand their needs and to develop innovative solutions for building leadership teams, employee engagement & performance, executive coaching, and career transition & outplacement. Sandra can be reached at [email protected] or at 647.968.6706